Connect to share and comment

Essay: Two Russian lives diverge

How college friends, in New York and St. Petersburg, live starkly different lives.

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Natasha lives in a small two-room apartment on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. Coats and slippers clutter the cramped entryway. From the kitchen waft smells of boiling potatoes and freshly cut vegetables.

Natasha is the main reason I try visit St. Petersburg regularly. She was my mother’s best friend at university, the Herzen Pedagogical Institute, where they studied languages like English and German in hope of becoming translators, or writers.

Natasha is 62 now, and though her spine is curved and her long fingers covered in eczema, you can still see the beauty she must have been in her youth, with her wide gray eyes and high cheekbones. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, she and my mother, Ella, trudged the same Soviet path: a good university (but not the best, since their Judaism precluded that), state-assigned jobs (as translators), free time spent strolling along Nevsky Prospekt (St. Petersburg’s main street) or waiting hours in line for a new pair of shoes (often the wrong size) or lipstick (a novelty). They loved poetry and rock 'n’ roll, lived for reading the illicit poems of Anna Akhmatova and listening quietly to the banned Beatles in the middle of the night on records bought on the black market.

Soon after, their paths diverged.

Natasha, ever the man-eater, settled down, married and had a son, Maxim. My mother, called in by the KGB in an appeal to spy on her hippie friends, began planning to flee the Soviet Union, which she did in 1974 after increased Jewish emigration was sanctioned by the meeting of American President Gerald Ford and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev.

From there, their stories can be told in snapshots. My mother made it, by way of Rome, to New York, where she worked as a translator, mainly crafting Russian and German medical texts into English. She met my father, who had fled the Soviet Union in 1975 and gotten political asylum. He was redoing his residency to get approval to work as a psychiatrist in the United States. Upon having me, my mother stopped working, proudly shedding the “double burden” carried by Soviet women — having to work and care for the home equally in the hopes of building an egalitarian society (it never quite worked out that way, though, and Soviet men found it difficult to shun their patriarchal upbringing and lift a finger in the home).

Natasha, meanwhile, found work with the customs service, a lucrative gig. She would later tell my mother how her home was filled with the best French cognac and Italian leather, “gifts” from the people she did business with. They weren’t seen as bribes. They were signs of thanks. But after several years, when it became accepted to give doctors a bottle of rare whisky and teachers a box of fine chocolate, it also came to be accepted that if you failed to deliver your contribution, you, or your child, wouldn’t quite get the full attention of the doctor or teacher, or customs official, for that matter.

At first, my mother and Natasha stayed in touch. Letters were sent. They took months to arrive. As time went on, the relationship faded. But Natasha still remembers, and mentions every time I see her, how my mother, in 1993, sent back with a relative a bright warm winter coat for Natasha. It made her the envy of everyone, and it hangs in her foyer still.

To look at the two women now is to see not just two lives but two countries diverged.